While we get to enjoy members of the avian family Mimidae here in Minnesota, such as the gray catbird and brown thrasher, the champion mimic of the family, the northern mockingbird, doesn’t include Minnesota as its breeding range (although Iowa and southern Wisconsin hosts this special bird).

As the family name suggests, mockingbirds and others of the family are mimics. However, no other mimid takes mimicry to the heights and complexity as does the northern mockingbird.

It is written that mockingbirds can imitate the songs of around 40 different species of birds, in addition to some 50 different call-notes. And according to Cornell Lab of Ornithology, a single male can learn up to 200 songs in its lifetime.

  • Hear the song of the northern mockingbird, courtesy of the Cornell Lab’s All About Birds species guide

David Allen Sibley describes the amazing repertoire of the northern mockingbird as a “song of varied phrases in regimented series: each phrase repeated two to six times, then an obvious pause followed by a different series...” He continues by stating that most of the bird’s phrases are musical, with many imitations of other birds.

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To be sure, the northern mockingbird is an adept mimic and a delight to many human observers. So beloved is the bird that five states — Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi, Texas, and Tennessee — all adopted it as their official state bird. Only two other birds outnumber the mockingbird in emblematic popularity — the northern cardinal was selected by seven states, and the western meadowlark by six.

Evidently the mockingbird is capable of much more than avian imitation. From one Internet account of this exclusive mockingbird attribute, a writer described other interesting sounds that mockingbirds have been known to impersonate, such as cackling chickens, barking dogs, squeaky hinges, and even a piano.

Thought by many people to be the most widely known songbird in North America, the northern mockingbird’s fame is inextricably tied to the bird’s notorious vocal cords. An enthusiastic and tireless singer, the mockingbird memorizes and practices its songs by day, and often perfects them at night.

The mockingbird is, of course, well known for its ability to mimic the songs of other birds with amazing accuracy. It is not unusual for them to be able to reel off 10-15 different species impersonations. And the males will often do this at any time of day, including at night. So, next time you hear a familiar bird song, look up to see if its a cardinal (or other bird), or a mockingbird impersonating a cardinal! (Flickr photo by Matt Poole/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Northeast Region)
The mockingbird is, of course, well known for its ability to mimic the songs of other birds with amazing accuracy. It is not unusual for them to be able to reel off 10-15 different species impersonations. And the males will often do this at any time of day, including at night. So, next time you hear a familiar bird song, look up to see if its a cardinal (or other bird), or a mockingbird impersonating a cardinal! (Flickr photo by Matt Poole/U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, Northeast Region)

Apparently, the mockingbird’s incessantly repetitive songs, though certainly varied, have evoked strong resentments by some people wishing to catch a few winks each night. As one red-eyed soul was counseled by a Ms. Diane Porter from the website “birdwatching.com” on how to deal with nighttime mockingbird songsters, she replied:

“If I succeeded in persuading my email correspondent to give up fighting against its love song (the whip-poor-will), he may have a similar experience with the mockingbird. The man is interested in birds, so maybe he will detect a cardinal's greeting embedded in the bird's melodies. Or the warble of a house wren, like the ones nesting in his birdhouse. Perhaps he'll recognize in this pouring music some notes from the longing of his own heart, and his irritation will begin to melt. It is one's irritation that keeps a person awake, not the bird.”

Porter concluded, “I hope the person who emailed me about the mockingbird will try my suggestion. If he does, I think the bird's song will become dear to him. And if someday he moves out of the mockingbird's range, he will miss it. I know I do.”

My own experiences with the northern mockingbird’s relatives, the gray catbird and brown thrasher, draws parallels to the emailer that Ms. Porter described, although I could never go as far as to say that these birds’ beautiful medleys are nuisances. No in fact, I’d love it if catbirds and thrashers sang all night long every night.

For the fun of it, visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website, or any other website where bird songs and calls are posted, and search northern mockingbird and listen to the many different song and calls of this amazing species. You’ll easily recognize many of the mockingbird’s subjects, mostly birds, but other sounds, too. Mockingbirds mimic frogs, toads, and insect calls as well.

Perhaps someday northern mockingbirds will find parts of Minnesota to their liking. With our growing season getting longer, these summer vagrants might one day become more common here. Until then, however, we’ll have to make do with the mockingbird’s cousin catbirds and thrashers, as we get out and enjoy the great outdoors.